Last week I watched the NFL Sunday night game. The Pittsburgh Steelers were playing the Baltimore Ravens in what for many years now has been a bitter rivalry. These teams both play a very physical style of football – one that historically has emphasized good defense. Over the last decade or so they have often been the two best teams in their division, and so their games have usually been important. Both teams have always had some strong personalities who were not afraid to call out the other team. When you put all of these factors together, you end up with a rivalry in which the teams really don’t like each other.
Sunday night’s game was a pretty typical example of what the rivalry has been like. The teams were physically beating each other up – especially the quarterbacks. The game was very chippy as players were talking back and forth, and there were several brief fights. The announcers picked up on this, and as so often happens, they used the metaphor of combat to describe the football game. The teams were said to be in a “war.” Players were praised as being “warriors.”
Now I never like to hear this line of discussion because it treats a football game as if it is more than it really is. For after all, no matter what the stakes are, no football game is a matter of life and death. The comparison of a game with the carnage and horror of combat makes a game seem to be far more than it is, and it loses sight of how terribly unique war really is. After all, war is not a spectator sport.
On many occasions I have thought that a far more appropriate comparison is that of the gladiatorial games that took place in the Roman empire. True, these could end in death – but not all did. At a football game you have a stadium full of people cheering on physical violence between opposing sides – I mean the bigger the hits the more pleased the fans are. People do get hurt, but the spectators aren’t particularly concerned. They really just want the injured player to be removed so that play can resume. And this contest takes place between two sides wearing armor – for how else do you describe a modern football helmet and shoulder pads?
Armor and the implements of combat were part of the first century world in which St. Paul lived. They were present in the entertainment of the gladiatorial contests found in every city of the Roman empire. And they were present in the Roman legions and auxiliary forces that were stationed in different parts of the empire, and that marched back and forth across it on the road network that the Romans had built.
In our text today from Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, the apostle brings his letter to close in a fashion that was very typical of Greco-Roman rhetoric. He uses the metaphor of combat and armor as he urges the Ephesians to live as Christians in the face of challenges. In doing so Paul draws together and summarizes many of the themes that he has developed during the course of the letter.
Paul brings the letter to a close by writing, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” He tells the Ephesians to “be strong in the Lord.” This phrase “in the Lord” is the same thing that Paul expresses again and again when he talks about being “in Christ.” He began the letter by saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” When Pauls says that Christians are “in the Lord” or “in Christ” he means that through the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism we have now been linked with Jesus and his saving action. His death and resurrection have become ours. The Spirit who raised Jesus is now in us and so as Paul told the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Because this is true, Paul says that they are to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Paul wants the Ephesians to embrace what Jesus Christ means for them, just as at the start of the letter he expressed the wish that they would perceive, “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”
The apostle then immediately describes how they are to do this and the reason it is necessary for them. He writes, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” The Ephesians will need the armor of God so that they can stand against the devil’s schemes directed at them. And then Paul describes the reality of the Christian life. He writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
We need to hear this text today, because things have not changed. The devil still schemes against you. After all, you once belonged to him. Conceived and born as a fallen sinner, he ruled you. He was your lord. And he doesn’t like losing.
So now he schemes to get you back. And make no mistake, this is combat – spiritual combat. As Paul says, you aren’t fighting against human beings. Instead it is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
However, the devil’s most effective approach is to convince you that there is no struggle going on. In fact, he seeks to convince you that struggle is the last thing you should be doing. That’s what he does through the world around us – through our culture. He entices you to take the wide and easy way.
After all, why should you deny yourself the pleasures of sex with your boy friend or girl friend? Why should you wait until marriage to live together? No one else is. Why should you say homosexuality is wrong, when that is only going to cause you problems in the world? Better to be open minded and accepting so that you can dance with Ellen Degeneres and sing with Lady Gaga. Be a lover, not a hater.
Why do you want to view that book, the Bible, as God’s inspired and authoritative Word? After all, it was written by a bunch of dead guys long ago who didn’t know anything about the world. All that talk about right and wrong, truth and error only divides people. And after all, didn’t Jesus say, “Don’t judge”?
You can extend this way of thinking into every area of life. And the truth is that it does impact you. It does chip away, bit by bit, so that over time it becomes easier and easier to accept things that are wrong. It becomes easier and easier to believe and act in the ways of the world – in the ways of the devil.
And because this is true, Paul says in our text today, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” Now, using the military metaphor Paul urges, “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” The ancient soldier used a leather belt to cinch up his clothing and gear. It left him unencumbered and ready for action. Drawing upon on an Old Testament background from Isaiah, Paul is saying that God’s truth in Christ is the thing that frees us to live in ways that reflect the Gospel. And in the same way, it is the gospel of the peace we have in Christ that gives us readiness to take up the struggle of living as God’s people in this world.
Paul says, “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”
Like the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation are all items that deal with protection. As we face the struggles of this world, we know that sin continues to be part of our life. But where the devil would accuse of not being holy; of not being fit for life with God and would set us on that hamster wheel of works, the Gospel of Jesus Christ says something completely different. As Paul wrote earlier, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Because of God’s grace we are righteous recipients of salvation through faith in Jesus. We trust God’s promise that through baptism our sins have been washed away, for Paul tells us in the previous chapter that as the Church we are the wife whom Christ loved and for whom sacrificed himself that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.
Finally, Paul says to take up the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. It is the Word of God that allows us to identify the schemes of the devil. It is the Word that allows us to overcome them because through the Word the Spirit strengthens us in faith. It is through the Word that the Spirit enables us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” This Word of God is the Word in its various forms – the word of Scripture, as well as the visible word of the sacraments.
When we are armed in this way, we are able to live as what Christ has made us to be. We put away sexual immorality and covetousnss. The husband loves his wife as himself, and the wife respects her husband. Children, obey their parents in the Lord. Parents bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Employees work in their job as they would for Christ, working as to the Lord and not to man. Bosses do the same as they remember that their Lord is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. And all live by faith in Christ as they are kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.